This is the transcript for the English with Stephen podcast episode all about why English grammar is wrong
Subscribe to your favourite podcast app to make sure you never miss another episode.
Alternatively, sign up to get regular emails with all the latest information.
Hello and welcome back to English with Stephen. My name’s Stephen Greene and today I have a Reasons for English episode. In these episodes, I talk about some of the historical things that have happened which have created this modern language we call English.
The last time I did a Reasons for English podcast, I talked about how the Normans had invaded England and create a two-tier system, with English for the poor peasants, and French for the upper classes. We then looked at how the 100 Years War forced these two languages together to create what is now known as Middle English.
Today, I want to look at the effect this had on English grammar. It is an effect that we are still living with today and helps to explain some of the difficulties many students have with English grammar.
All of that, after this short break.
Before we look at the problems specific to English grammar, it is worth pointing out that every language has its idiosyncrasies, you know, those things that make it strange to other speakers. If you are interested in languages in general, then I would like to recommend the podcast called Radio Omniglot. It is a wonderful podcast all about languages and linguistics and is fascinating. There are stories about the origins of various English words as well as news about languages in general. The podcast is part of a wider blog and encyclopaedia that should satisfy anyone with a general interest in languages and language systems. You can find the Radio Omniglot podcast on your favourite podcast app, go to omniglot.com/radio or you can find a link on my site EnglishwithStephen.com
And now back to why English grammar is all wrong.
After the 100 Years War, everyone had to speak English. French was no longer trusted and speaking English was an expression of pride in the country. The problem was that up until recently English was seen as an unsophisticated language. It was a language that was for the farmers and workers, not for the educated elites.
Some people thought that English was perfect for talking about beer, boar, and blood, but could not possibly be used to talk about educated subjects such as law, leisure and learning.
Whatever the rights or wrongs, the educated elites of the 15th and 16th centuries were worried that this new language they all had to speak was not good enough to take its place along with such classical languages as Greek or Latin, or even the more modern French.
Something had to be done.
And so it was decided that one of the problems with English was that it didn’t have a grammar.
Now, this isn’t true. Every language has a grammar. When we talk about ‘grammar’ we are talking about the rules of a language. These rules might not be written down. The speakers of a language might not know the rules they are following. But there are still rules. If there were no rules there would be chaos in the language and nobody would be able to communicate with anyone else.
What the educated elites meant was that there were no grammar books where the rules were all nicely written out and everyone could agree on what was right and what was wrong.
And so they decided to create a grammar book for English.
There were two problems with this. The first problem was the actual rules they used. The second problem was what they did with these rules.
As we have seen in previous episodes, English is a Germanic language. It came to England with the Anglo Saxons and then was added to by the Vikings. Both these communities spoke a variation of German. The Normans, in 1066, brought French which changed and increased the vocabulary but did not drastically change the rules of the language.
Unfortunately, the people who were designing this new grammar for English thought that the most perfect languages ever were Greek and Latin. They also admired French, even if they were a bit too scared to speak it in public.
And so they decided to superimpose Latin grammar rules onto English. They took rules that were useful for one family and languages and tried to make them fit a different family of languages.
This does not work.
Latin, and the languages that come from Latin like French, Portuguese and Spanish, have many verb forms. English does not. But it isn’t just this. English simply does not work in the same way as Latinate, or Romance, languages do.
This means we got some very silly rules. For example, there was a rule that sentences in English should not end in a preposition. The reason for this rule is that Latin sentences do not end in a preposition. But English has phrases like ‘Where do you come from?’ ‘Do something you are good at,’ and ‘I had nothing to laugh about’ are all perfectly good English sentences, but they end in prepositions.
Another silly rule was that you should not split your infinitive. Again, you cannot split the infinitive in Latin, and so it was decided that you should not do this in English. However, in Star Trek, Captain Kirk says the mission is ‘to boldly go’ into space, not ‘to go boldly’ into space. And, to be honest, it sounds much better the way Captain Kirk said it instead of following some invented rule.
Some people thought these rules were important and tried to impose them on others. Most people just ignored them and so nowadays these arguments have largely disappeared. The original grammars were ‘prescriptive’ which means they tried to tell people how you should talk. Most modern grammars are ‘descriptive’ or they describe how the language is really used.
These silly rules are not a huge problem, especially for students because they are largely ignored except by the pedantic. However, there is a problem that I find students have again and again with English grammar.
And that is the names we have for grammar.
Names like ‘present perfect’, ‘modal verb’, the ‘past participle’ seemed designed to create fear in students. If students are not afraid then they are usually totally confused. And this confusion is perfectly understandable. I will give you two examples; the past participle and the past tense.
When you are learning your irregular verbs in English, you probably had a table with three columns, the infinitive, the past tense and the past participle. For example, to sing is the infinitive, sang is the past tense and sung is the past participle.
The only problem is that the past participle has nothing to do with the past. It can be used to form passives in the past, present or future. Same with the present perfect. In fact, it can also be used as an adjective. My students often get confused about this thing called the past participle.
Another example of bad names is the past tense. It seems pretty clear, right? The past tense is used to talk about things that happened in the past. For example, ‘it rained yesterday’.
Except no. It isn’t so great. Consider this sentence
If it rained tomorrow I would stay home.
Now this is a second conditional sentence. And we create the second conditional by using the past tense – ‘if it rained’. However, it isn’t talking about the past. It is talking about the future. We know this because of the word tomorrow. ‘If it rained tomorrow…’
So why on earth do we use the past tense to talk about the future? What sort of ridiculous language would do that?
Well, no language would do that. At least, no language that is described using a rational system would. No language that is described on its own merits would.
But English is described using the merits of Latin, and so it cannot be considered rational.
Now, I know I have probably scared half of the people listening to this. And maybe the other half stopped listening as soon as I said ‘past participle’. But do not be afraid. There are solutions to this madness.
But unfortunately, I don’t have time to talk about the solutions right now. I promise, though, that next week I will tell you all about what you should do about the crazy English grammar.
Don’t forget to check out Omniglot Radio for great news and stories about English and other languages. And remember, you can find a transcript for this episode as well as all the past episodes on my site, EnglishwithStephen.com.
I hope I haven’t scared you too much and that you will listen in again next week.
Have a good week and look after yourselves.